Wood, Smoke, Meat, Love: Smoke and Porter, A Public House
Wood. Smoke. Meat. Love.
At Smoke and Porter: A Public House
Fire is elemental.
“Ancestral, really,” says Henry Bisson. “When you smell wood smoke, a deep and ancient memory is triggered. That is how we ate, for maybe thousands of years—around a wood fire, meat turning on a spit, with the flavor of the smoke permeating our food. We still respond to that.”
Bisson is the chef and owner of Smoke and Porter: A Public House, on the east side of Traverse City. When he knew that the time had come for him to open his own restaurant, he looked around for the right concept, and the right place. One evening, in his backyard, grilling dinner for his family, the concept jumped out at him.
“I had a chicken on the grill. It smelled so good, so satisfying. I loved how it made me feel. The meat was delicious, and then I just knew—bring the idea of wood-smoked food into a fine-dining experience. I knew it was perfect.”
By that point Bisson had been behind the stove for nearly 20 years. He started as a young man with a summer job in a kitchen. Then came culinary school at Northwestern Michigan College in Traverse City. He spent a summer internship in Oregon, where he learned a new cuisine, more sophisticated and more high-end than he had ever seen before. The summer after that he worked at 21 Federal, one of Nantucket Island’s storied fine-dining legends. (Anthony Bourdain mentions its kitchen in his tattler Kitchen Confidential.)
He was in love with a woman from northern Michigan, so back he came. Her married her, and they started a family. He was hired by Michael Peterson (Siren Hall in Elk Rapids, Anchor food truck), who was opening Lulu’s Bistro in Bellaire. His wife, Mindy, converted to restaurant life, joining Henry in the running of Lulu’s. For 13 years, he stretched himself and the menu, embracing local food and local culture. Then it was time to go out on his own, and Traverse City called to him.
“The east side of this town is so interesting. There is a lot going on here, with a growing sense of community and a personality that is very different from downtown. Even with all the hotels full in the summer, the pace is different—quieter, more relaxed. I thought that this would be a great location for the kind of place I wanted to open.”
An old fast-food building was waiting for his vision, and was converted into a contemporary, upscale smokehouse. The oblong silver tap now behind the bar became the starting point for the look he saw in his head.
“I saw that tap at an industry show, and I knew the minute I saw it that it was unique, and was my starting place. Around it, the woodsy, wrought-iron and industrial look came together.”
The charcoal-colored walls are a backdrop to the wood featured throughout the restaurant. The bar gleams, 20 feet of polished hemlock from the Alden Music House Museum barn floors, as is the large table in the center of the room. The hostess stand and the other table tops are from old barn wood, too, and the shelves behind bar are hemlock from the woodworker’s stash. The wood molding lining the walls was given a burn treatment, lending a warm and very symbolic elegance.
“Smoke and Porter is a new American smokehouse—we are a classic barbecue place with ribs and sides, similar in theory to barbecue places in Texas and Memphis, but we are doing it with a sophisticated twist. We have a smoker and a wood-fired grill, so all our meat is perfectly smoked. The Public House part of our name is because we appeal to a broader palate. This kind of food is something that all different kinds of people enjoy, from the high-powered executive to the high school student, everyone loves the flavor of good smoked food.”
The menu offers a number of unique starters and salads. Lobster and butternut squash bisque, smoked brisket and sweet pea risotto and a smorgasbord of house-made charcuterie are delicious standouts. The wedge salad with pork belly, deviled egg and bleu cheese buttermilk dressing is a favorite, as is the wood-roasted kabocha squash with red quinoa salad.
Some of the choices on the “From the Pit” part of the menu are smoked half chicken, country fried smoked chicken, pulled pork, ribs, and three different barbecue sauces: South Carolina, St. Louis and Memphis style. The sauces are house-made to very exacting standards, and he will sell the sauces to customers directly. (Bring in your own jar.)
Other mainstays on the menu are fish and chips, a grilled filet, smoked short ribs and a vegetable curry. Sandwiches like a smoked beef pastrami, a Cubano and classic burgers are popular, all served with waffle fries, or guests can substitute one of the pit sides.
“Our maple-plank-roasted fish is special—we have trout from Lake Huron, with jasmine rice, shiitake mushrooms, leek miso, roasted beets and asparagus. You are not going to get that at a BBQ joint,” jokes Bisson.
There is plenty for a vegetarian or vegan to eat, as there is always a meatless dish on the menu and many of the sides are also meat-free. Almost everything is gluten-free or can be made that way, and patrons are encouraged to tell their server about any dietary needs.
The restaurant also offers traditional sides, like baked beans and potato salad, done in a distinct way. The beans spend some time in the smoker and the potato salad is done warm, German style. Other sides are very popular with customers, especially the Brussels sprouts and the crisp cheddar fritters. The kitchen makes all its jams, mostardas, agrodolce, pickles and breads. The bacon that wraps the whole-grain mustard potato cakes and all the charcuterie is made in the spacious kitchen.
Chef Bisson also curates an extensive wine list, and the bar features many unique cocktails, such as the 3G, a gin “Margarita” with both ginger and elderflower liqueurs and Rangpur gin. Happy hour is 3–6 weeknights, and all night Thursday, and there is an extensive small-plate menu for the after-work crowd.
“Anyone looking for that downtown food experience can find it here, plus we have lots of great parking,” he laughs. “Our Saturday brunch is becoming a local favorite, because pairing our smoked meats with breakfast foods like eggs and pancakes is a win/win for hungry eaters.”
The kitchen plans the smoking and stoking of the fires very carefully, so that staff don’t have to be on site 24/7 to tend to the fires. The smoker features a box that holds whole pieces of hardwood, which makes it easy to feed, but it must be tended. The fires use about a cord of hardwood a week, and uses primarily maple because of the sweet smell.
“Food, Fire and Craft is our motto. I love the craft of this kind of food. It takes time and care and is sometimes tricky to work with. That makes it challenging and fun to turn out such unique flavors.”
Bisson uses local vegetables where he can, and he grows herbs like anise hyssop, chocolate mint, mizuna, chives and blossoms in front of the restaurant during the summer months. His vision for the future includes using the area around the restaurant to grow his own berries and putting raised beds on the property next door. He wants to make bacon and speck (a prosciutto-like smoked ham) his way, and sell it to the public. He wants to make an impression on his neighborhood and on this foodie town.
“Smoke and Porter will be known as much for the reputation of the food as for the smell of the woodsmoke—that will draw people in, but it is the food that will send them away happy.”
IF YOU GO
Smoke and Porter Public House
1752 N. US 31, Traverse City • 231-642-5020
Spring hours: Monday–Saturday 11 AM–9 PM • Closed Sunday